Yesterday, when I picked up my 7 year old after school, he jumped in the car and blurted, “Mom, something bad happened on the bus.” Our normal routine is for him to tell me three good things that happened during the day, but I could tell this wasn’t the time to refocus him and instead asked what had happened.
“I was sitting by these two boys and one of them said the other one could come to his birthday party, but I couldn’t because I’m brown.”
I managed to subdue the Mama Bear which wanted to rage out and responded to him calmly with, “Oh, buddy. What did you do?”
He proceeded to tell me about how he told the boy it wasn’t fair, about how he told the bus driver, about how the bus driver told the other boy what he’d said was mean and gave Isaac a different seat.
“I just didn’t think that would ever happen to me,” he mused aloud, “but I guess I was wrong.”
As a parent, watching your child experience woundedness is painfully humbling. We do what we can to empower and shelter, but they will experience the world for all of its horrors and splendors and we are unable to completely control the manner in which these events fall upon them. It broke me, hearing in his words the hurt mixed with surprise.
I would wager that the child on that bus has already heard, whether at school or home, that we do not judge others by the color of their skin. And yet, here we were in the car, talking over the racist comment my son experienced on his elementary school bus, so what went wrong?
It is important to note here that I am white and my son is black. In the 5 1/2 years since I’ve been his mama, I’ve seen how greatly we white people struggle in verbalizing thoughts about race. We are comfortable discussing Martin Luther King Jr. but in personal dialogue, my son’s race is often omitted to the point of awkwardness. When we talk about black people, the word ‘black’ is often whispered or stumbled over for fear we are somehow unintentionally offending the person or people of whom we speak. We want to be respectful, but we’re often doing more harm than good despite our intentions.
If we, the adults, can’t get over our fear of risking the occasional foot-in-mouth comment and instead resort to referring to my son in hushed tones or stumbled words, our children will hear what we say but see what we do, thus understanding that while we SHOULD treat all people with equality, in actuality there is embarrassment and distance to be applied when we talk about race. (The same could be said for people of a different faith, culture, gender/sexual orientation, physical difference, or those with special needs.)
I called the school and explained the situation. I asked if the child’s teacher could please have a discussion with him and reiterate how hurtful it was to exclude another student because he was black, and I hope they say the word. I am trying to teach my son to be proud and comfortable in his own skin, but it’s terribly difficult for him to believe me if the example being set around him is one of discomfort and whispered tones.
When a mass tragedy occurs, we react. We exhibit compassion, fear, anger, revulsion, confusion, or some unidentifiable emotional cocktail. Strong feelings can move us to act and this is a good thing. Intense emotions can be harnessed for positive actions and God, we need so much positivity right now.
We react most effectively when we feel a connection to trauma and we’re naturally wired to care about the issues which directly affect us. It is how we function best in a community because it fosters the understanding that what impacts one of us impacts all of us.
Take, for example, that I am a straight, cis-gendered woman. Despite this, Orlando broke my heart thinking of my LGBTQ friends and how it could have been one of them at Pulse.
Or how I am a Christian, but when I hear fear-mongering Islamaphobic comments, my heart hurts considering how those words fall on the ears of my Muslim friends.
Or that I am white, but when I hear the skepticism regarding the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement, I am horrified when contrasting this sentiment with the individual stories of fear and systemic racism experienced by my black friends.
And when I read about Nice, France last night, I felt a visceral fear over the safety of my Maman Français, with whom I lived just outside of Nice on a college study abroad- a city and country which has shaped so much of my adulthood.
Each of these mass tragedies moved me to speak up and speak out because I felt connected to them despite all of the ways which, at first glance, would place me separate from those immediately impacted. I have to constantly push myself to seek to understand those around me even though my natural reaction is often to retract inside of the safety of that which I am comfortable. It is hard, emotional work to overcome the apathy which threatens to mute my words and silence my actions.
Friends, we can no longer tolerate apathy in ourselves.
Apathy is at risk of creating more dangerous outcomes than fear and hatred. When we see tragedy replayed and repeated, our inclination is to shrug with the sense of futility in it all and then tune out completely. It is a defense mechanism which we must actively fight to reject.
Ideally, individual relationships bring about the most change but they take time and, because of this, the power of first steps cannot be underestimated. We can start by looking up open community events, visiting a museum we may not have otherwise considered visiting on a vacation, reading literature written by authors outside of our race, religion, lifestyle, gender identification, or native country, and considering joining a Facebook group open to those willing to learn. Relationships stem from a genuine desire to listen and understand. First steps, even small ones, matter.
Our hope in the midst of such brokenness is our connection to faces, names, and stories. They move us forward. They bring the macro back to the micro. They refocus our perceived futility. This we can do, WE CAN DO THIS. We must take the small steps, friends, so we may be well equipped to bring light in the midst of darkness.
Extend a hand.
Lend an ear.
Reject the apathy.
Parent-teacher conferences were tonight at my school. I love the chance to talk with my families about their children. I love laughing at the stories and I love sharing our concerns about the child for whom we both care. They, in turn, love hearing about how a teacher enjoys their child and I never have to pretend that I do. (Even the ones who exhaust me in every sense of the word. Even those little crazy babies.)
Sometimes though, once in a while, there are families who break me down. Kids in these families? Their chance at getting out of poverty, out of trauma, out of a life of hardship born of limited choices… it seems bleak at best. The adults in their lives just can’t seem to get themselves together and the weight of that falls so heavy on their kids. Those little humans hold it all but have to act like they don’t and so it comes out as hyperactivity and anger and poor grades which means they leave one stressful situation only to come to school and have to handle an entire other set of rules they can’t seem to get straight.
I try to make my room a safe place. I try to love them well. I try my damnedest to be a shelter. I try to find the upside, to stay positive, to shine light into darkness when my mind wants to sit there, depressed in the corner.
Most times I can manage it.
Tonight, I could not.
I cried after a particularly tough conference. I can’t fix it for this kid, I can’t take away what he’s heard and seen, and I can’t produce for him a parent who is capable of supporting and caring for him the way he so desperately needs. It isn’t in my power; I’m just his teacher. I see him only enough to love him and see his potential, but not enough to actually make those imperative changes for him.
I know all the pat answers about what a difference a teacher can make. I know all of that. (I even believe it sometimes.) But the children I work with, have worked with for more than a decade? I see the same things year after year after year and it wears on you. I know about trauma; I’ve been around it for a long time now. I see what it does when combined with poverty. You have to beat down the cynicism.
Usually, I can pull myself out. But sometimes, it is good and right to sit in grief for a little while and stop trying to reboot. I will continually stand by my belief that we are worse for the wear when we listen to society’s advice on rushing through grief. Deep sadness is useful for reminding us why it is important to continue to rage and fight and stand up for the change you want to see. It removes calluses and strengthens your resolve and in a job in which you are continually confronted by brokenness, you will not survive if you do not stop to do this work of mourning from time to time.
I’m taking some time to mourn. It is the only way I know to keep going into my classroom everyday, every month, every year and seeing the same scenes replayed- different players, same game.
I try to be positive. I look for the good. But sometimes, you have to be broken anew in order to remember why it is you’ve got to do the unrelenting but necessary work to remain there.
When I first picked up Dear Thing by Julie Cohen, I was skeptical. Completely, one eyebrow raised, doubtful it was going to be good skeptical. Knowing it had something to do with infertility and surrogacy, I was finding it hard to buy into a book about such a sensitive subject. As someone who has experienced infertility and the many emotions it evokes, I was slightly on the defense about any author who would take that on. I (wrongly, as it happens) assumed infertility was merely a vehicle to carry a love triangle storyline and, having far more experience with infertility than I’d prefer, I was leery of such a move. But then, two chapters in, I had to stop reading and google the author because not only was infertility the focus, I felt sure she’d had personal experience from which to pull and, as she explains in the video below, I was right on target.
Through the lives of Ben and Claire (a couple dealing with infertility) and Romily (their friend who offers to have their baby for them as a surrogate), Cohen hits all of those depressing, infertility milestones:
- The avoidance: “She hadn’t gone to the christening, not to avoid the babies but to avoid the understanding.”
- The grief: “She was tired of feeling the sharp stab of pain every time she passed a playground. That raw ache of yearning at Christmas. She was tired of feeling like a failure, once a month, like clockwork.”
- The effect on a marriage: “(A baby) would make up for any blip in their sex life. Or the several blips over the years as they’d adjusted from thinking of sex as something fun, to thinking of it as something that was supposed to make babies but didn’t.”
- The rewriting of imagined futures: “They’d talked about names a long time ago, when they thought it would be easy to have children.”
- The exhaustion: “‘I’m through…With all of this. The dieting to stay at the optimum BMI for fertility, the hormones, the injections. The down-regulating and the stimulations. Peeing on sticks. Having my eggs taken out of me and fertilized in a test tube and put back into me.'”
- The devastating hope: “‘Our plans are hurting me. I’ve thought constantly about having a baby for so long. And that’s not the worst thing: the worst thing is having hope. Every cycle, I’d get to hoping this was the one, this time it was going to happen. And then… nothing.”
Though I found the story so deeply engaging I would heartily recommend it to a reader inexperienced with infertility, I personally found it a lovely read because it felt so refreshing to read a fictional account of my all too familiar nonfictional experience. I could relate to so many of the emotions; it easily drew me into each of the characters and the ways in which infertility altered them. None of it felt forced or cheesy, which is saying an awful lot for a book about a love triangle and infertility!
One word of caution: I am writing this as a woman experienced with infertility, a point of view from which I have first person perspective. I do think it is important to note that in this book surrogacy and adoption are constant themes. I mention this because, though I am unable to comment on how an adoptee may feel upon reading this book, I could see it possibly triggering strong emotions.
Overall, this was a beautiful read, particularly for a reader with personal experience with infertility or for a reader with a loved one experiencing it. Dear Thing left me more than pleasantly surprised. Well done Julie Cohen, for writing a book managing to speak to the heart of such a difficult experience and making beauty from your own painful story. A smile of understanding and appreciation from this comforted reader.
****I am so excited to have been given the opportunity by St. Martin’s Griffin to give away 5 advance copies of this book! To enter to win, head over to my Instagram account or Facebook page (see links at top right of the blog). You may enter at both for two chances to win. Last day to enter is March 5th. Winners will be chosen at random and notified on March 6th.****
**This book was sent to me via St. Martin’s Griffin in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my opinion of this book.**
Last night, I took Isaac to the movies. He’d had two great days in a row at school, Ryan was out of town, and I have a cold: all signs pointing to YES! Take that child to the theater with those large, comfortable seats and darkness-welcoming relaxation after single parenting for 3 days. (I bow in awe of all you full time single parents. You have my undying admiration.) I’d considered just watching a movie at home, (a treat for a kid who isn’t allowed screentime during the week save for school work), but I’ve got this thing… I’m a far better parent out of my house than in it.
I have my moments, sure, (we’re about to sew a Dracula cape for a stuffed rabbit), but mostly when I’m home, the sirens call to me. I’m like the mom equivalent of a sailor except instead of luring me with the enticement of sex and beauty, they’re calling to me about laundry, cleaning, emailing, reorganizing, and dirty dishes. Also, there are the REALLY lovely ones who beckon with awaiting books or backlogged magazines or Instagram. You guys, they do that creepy, witchy, come-hither-finger-thing and I DO! I DO come hither! I AM NOT STRONG ENOUGH! I AM WEAK! *Admits defeat by flicking through an instagram feed of Sphinx cats.*
It is hard for me to admit this. I know so many moms who seem to come into their own by spending time with their children in their homes. They’re crafting with them, baking with them, playing games with them, painting with them, taking sunlight filled pictures of them frolicking in meadows to post on social media and send me into a spiral of mom guilt. (There aren’t enough meadows in our schedule! We need more meadows!)
Aside from the meadows though, I do all of those things- I do. It’s just that I’m not totally present though much of it because of the F*CKING SIRENS. I spend a lot of time saying, “Let me finish this, buddy, and I’ll be right there!” And I do get right there, but I also then feel like I’d been choosing to spend more of my time with the Dyson or my child’s dirty clothes instead of with my actual child. *Exasperated guttural mom cry*
Now, to be fair, most of those things DO need to get done. Even the reading is important because I know I am a better mom when I pour some time into myself. (I’m having a more difficult time justifying the Sphinx cats…) All of those things are part of parenting and if I don’t keep up with them we won’t have any open, clean spaces in which to build Dracula’s Lair. Ninja Turtle hideout? The North Pole? Dracula is giving out presents at the North Pole while the Ninja Turtles pull the sleigh??? Honey, I’m going to finish the laundry- I have no idea how to even attempt to play that game. (Which, in itself, is a whole other reason why getting out, out and AWAY is better: I don’t know what the hell is going on in his imaginative role playing and when I do try, I get a lot of, “Mom, that’s not really how you do it.” Enter the Dyson.)
So we go out.
We go for hikes.
We go to museums.
We go get ice cream.
We go to the park.
We run errands. I actually think I may be a better mom in Target than I am in our own house sometimes. I am not kidding.
What I am saying is, if you are one of those moms who can’t seem to get herself together at home enough to be as present as you’d like, I AM TOO. I’m mostly sure this is totally fine! I don’t think I’m the most reliable source on that, but at any rate, there’s strength in numbers and I know for a fact I’m not the only one, so there’s that. No shame! Well, not really. I actually feel really bad about it. But I feel a lot better when we’re at the ice cream shop… or on a wooded trail… or at *cue angelic choir* Target.
We had a meeting with Isaac’s kindergarten teacher this week. I’d requested one because there was some miscommunication and I needed clarification. As a mama who is also a teacher, I was approaching the meeting with my professional background combined with my mommy emotion and I can tell you from experience, this mixture dramatically prevents you from going into a discussion without defensiveness. In that moment, it didn’t matter that I believe Isaac’s teacher has been a great fit for him this year, it didn’t matter that I believed we’d get the confusion cleared up, and it didn’t matter that I knew we were all working toward the goal of supporting the same child.
What mattered was that I had concerns my child’s needs weren’t being met and I was going to fix it. It was a moment when he needed his parents to step up for him and doing so was just and right.
But, it’s a fine line, isn’t it? This worrying we do over our kids. There are some battles we ought to take up and there are others we ought never have entered. The degree at which we choose to take arms can vary and, as someone who battles the need for control in her own life, trusting me with that of a small child means I very often pick up a sword when I should have been handing it to my son instead.
We worry over our kids. It is part of how we are created: to keep watch, to keep them safe. To protect feelings and precious bodies. To guard from hardships and struggle. We love our kids and we worry over them- these emotions are interconnected. Our primal urge is to protect at all costs and, despite how our personal opinions may vary as to where we draw lines, we are born with the innate compulsion to protect our own.
Recently, I heard a talk by the filmmakers of the documentary, I’ll Push You. The movie follows a 500 mile trek across Spain though which one friend, Patrick, pushes his buddy, Justin, in his wheelchair. They weren’t presenting about parenting, but their words had a profound effect on the moments in which I need to back up and shut up for the sake of my child.
The transformation Justin and Patrick went through made such an impact on me because I could relate to Patrick’s desire to fix, to fight, to ease difficulty for Justin because he loved him. Eventually though, Patrick realized that the best way he could strengthen Justin was to stop trying to fix his difficulties and start finding ways to support plans Justin was perfectly capable of devising for himself. As a parent, this is a continual struggle for me, this release of responsibility to my little boy; this trusting that- even at 6- he is capable of handling far more than I am often able to admit.
Recently, I was at the Columbus Museum of Art with Isaac. They have the most imaginative, inviting children’s space and one activity presented large cardboard puzzle pieces to create a 3-dimensional tree-like structure. All three trunk tables were in use and my child, the extrovert, went directly up to two children and asked if he could please help them build. The older boy thought for a moment, looked at his sister, and then said no. HE SAID NO!! Instinctively I wanted to go to Isaac, prompt him to ask a different child, tell him I’d play with him somewhere else, but I made myself stand back.
Do you know what my child did after he was denied playtime with that
bratty other little boy? He walked over to the next table and asked a different child the same question and got a yes. THE REJECTION DIDN’T EVEN PHASE HIM. It honestly pained me more than it pained him. Had I stepped in, I would have taken that away from him. I would have taken that tiny moment in time which he will never even remember but which is gradually forming his ability to handle conflict as an adult. He is receiving these lessons now and I am doing more harm than good by trying to constantly smooth the road before him. Not every road needs smoothing.
In these smaller moments, standing still seems nearly impossible. Shutting up is even worse. To be clear, there are certainly appropriate times for standing up for our children, but I’m reluctantly realizing how many times I also need to be quiet, watch from the sidelines, and hope to God I’ve been adequately equipping my child to feel empowered to sleuth answers independently.
Honestly, when it comes down to it, my fear is not even that my child can’t overcome adversity. I have every faith in my tiny powerhouse of a boy that he is capable of feats far beyond what I could ever dream up for him. My fear is that I cannot and should not single handedly fight his battles for him and furthermore, I can’t face the self-centered lie that I would even have the capability to do so.
Yes, my son will experience trials and tribulations. Yes, some will be massive and others trivial. In the end though, Isaac’s battles are not all mine to fight and by trying, I risk victimizing my son in his own story instead of stepping back to give him the space to live into it. I am learning the hardest thing for me to do as a mother is to pray for the wisdom to instill in him strategies to fight, to overcome, and to persevere while I cheer him on from the sidelines. God, GOD, I hate that so much because it makes me feel helpless and out of control, but I also know this to be true: I want to empower him to be the hero in his own story. I want him to be an overcomer and a fighter- for all the right reasons. I want him to be strong and resilient. To feel capable and in control of his future. I am raising a strong man and I want this to be the message he hears loud and clear from me:
You are loved.
You are strong.
You are resilient.
You are capable.
You’ve got this.
Last year, my son told me he thought the real Santa had to be white because he’d never seen a black Santa. My heart was broken by my inability to have seen this coming as an issue. I am, after all, his mama and it was painful for me to admit I’d missed this because I’m white. But with any experience challenging what we hold as truth, we must move past the hurt, the grief, the anger, the disgust, or whatever emotion we initially feel when coming up against a viewpoint which challenges ours. We’ve got to remember that our beliefs are a result of our experiences, of which everyone has their own. The Santa oversight didn’t make me a failure as a mom, but it allowed for me to rethink the world through my son’s eyes. It is possible to reframe our beliefs when we listen well to others and, in the event you still disagree, it is possible to continue to hold your opinion while maintaining civility and humility in sharing it- to extend humanity toward those with whom you disagree.
May we, in the coming of the new year, be mindful when sharing our opinions. May they be based upon open and honest discussions, on personal connections, on voices or sources we hadn’t before considered. May we remember that opinions are fluid. May we choose our words of dissension carefully and with intention. May we learn, as I am trying, that the world is not always as it seems and only changes through a conscious effort to make it so.
In this New Year, may you find ways to right wrongs, to stretch your comfort boundaries, and to speak with a boldness tempered with grace. May you as a result, have your own awakening experience of
watching a child
sit at the foot of a Santa
The world is so very, very broken right now, is it not? People are doing horrible things to one another, saying horrible things to one another, manifesting some form of hell on Earth daily. I don’t think I’d get much push back on that. The human race en masse? We’re not handling life so well lately.
But then there’s also this. There’s most IMPORTANTLY this.
Today, at my school, hundreds of volunteers from a local church swept in and took our lives over for the day. They decorated the entire building in snowy, Christmas beauty. They acted as personal shoppers to our kids as each picked out brand new coats, hats, mittens, boots. They clapped as the little girls spun in front of mirrors, admiring their faux fur hood lined, beaming faces. They guided the crafting of pillows and ornaments, delivered pizza, sang ‘Let it go’ at a concert during lunch. They poured hot chocolate, colored pictures, and pushed on swings.
They loved my kids so well.
My small, resilient, grieving, exuberant, abused, malnourished, forgiving, imaginative, underprivileged, frustrating, lovable, beautiful kids.
I cried twice on the WAY to work thinking about it, but not as hard as I’m crying now recounting it.
Seven volunteers were specifically assigned to our class for the day. I watched my students hold hands with, get hugs from, laugh with, talk with, color with these people for hours. At the end of the day, I asked each student to share their favorite part of the day. Do you know what virtually every child said? “I liked hanging out with *classroom volunteer’s name*.”
It caught me off guard, you know? They’d just gotten all of these new winter clothes, coloring books, treats, and prizes from games and the thing they loved most about the day was the PEOPLE. It damn near literally broke my heart into pieces. All of that stuff took second place to someone genuinely caring for them, listening to them, CHOOSING them. It was the best part of my day, listening to one after the other share this out.
However, despite leaving with warmer winter gear, many of my kids still went home to their painful realities. It kills me daily that I can’t fix it for them. New mittens won’t fix it, sparkly garlands won’t fix it, and whatever unimaginable sum of money it cost to put on that kind of amazing production won’t fix it which, on the surface, can feel terribly hopeless.
For one day, those kids felt kindness from complete strangers. For one day, they didn’t have to work through academics when their minds are drifting to homefront issues. All day, through actions as well as words, they heard: “You are special, you are enjoyable, you are fun to be around, you are smart, you are funny, you are polite, you are important.”
Their realities didn’t change today but, perhaps, by the grace of God and goodness, their mindsets did.
Do you see what this means for us? It means, (despite the dire need for these actions), no matter how much money we give to charities, how many clothes we donate, no matter how many food drives we support, we actually make the most impact with OURSELVES. When we love others well, when we are present, when we listen, when we make it known we are choosing the presence of another, we are in tiny but powerful ways healing the horrors surrounding us.
Never underestimate the power of your presence and affection for people- familiar or unknown. You, as it happens, are your most valuable influence on the world’s brokenness, one person at a time.
“I was unprepared. I was unprepared for fostering, for the adoption following it, for the open adoption which unexpectedly blossomed, for raising an African American son as a white woman. I was unprepared for all of it. I didn’t know what we were getting into despite my prolific reading on the subject. Adoption caught me by surprise.”
You can read the rest of my piece for Portrait of an Adoption‘s 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days series here. In their words, “In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the fifth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.”
I’m honored to be a part of the narrative.